Last night saw the visit of Ipswich Town to the Emirates for the second leg of their Carling Cup semi-final with Araenal. The lowly Championship side held a 1-0 lead from the first leg after a very gutsy home performance two weeks ago. Ipswich had something to hold on to, and Arsenal were going to have to work very hard to make it through to the final at Wembley in late February.
Arsene Wenger picked a very strong side for the game, with only Denilson, Andrey Arshavin and Nicklas Bendtner coming in from the team that beat Wigan Athletic 3-0 on Saturday. It meant that Alex Song, Samir Nasri and Theo Walcott dropped to the bench, and also that there was no place in the team for Marouane Chamakh. I thought Chamakh would have been in the team, but the boss showed how much he wanted a trip to Wembley by including Robin Van Persue as the central striker.
From the start Arsenal worked hard to try to create the openings they needed to put Ipswich to the sword, but Ipswich worked even harder to stop them. During the first half Arsenal had a few chances, and RVP hit the bar with a header from a Bendtner cross, with the best of them. Besides that chance Cesc Fabregas also had a couple of good chances, but he failed to take either of them. On 18 minutes a ball whipped into the Arsenal box saw a group of players from both sides go for it, and it led to a nasty collision between Bakary Sagna and Wojciech Szczesny. The big Polish goalkeeper was able to continue, but Sagna had to be substituted by Emmanuel Eboue, with what appeared to be concussion.
It meant there were four extra minutes in the first half, but they were to no avail as Arsenal failed to get a goal. There were suggestions that possibly Walcott or Nasri would come on for the ineffectual Bendtner and Arshavin. However the team emerged for the second half with no more changes to it, and it was up to the same players to get the result that Arsenal wanted so badly.
During the half time interval Alan Hansen told the viewers on BBC how good a player Cesc was, as they replayed his highlights from the first half. There was one incident where Cesc went down after a slight shove in the penalty area, and it was never a penalty. Hansen's view was that it was a shame that "continental players had brought diving to the English game", and I wasn't surprised by his attitude.
I can remember him playing in the Scotish international team against Belgium in the late 1970s I think with Kenny Dalglish, and Dalglish committed one of the most cunning dives I have ever seen. By Hansen's judgement that would make Scotland part of continental Europe, although I'm fairly sure it's not. He also failed to mention that the two main culprits for diving in the Premier League are Steven Gerrard and Wayne Rooney, who are both stalwarts of the English team. Let him call a dive what it is, but he should do it equally for any player, no matter what team he plays for, or what country he comes from. The insistence in some circles that English footballers would never resort to those tactics are a joke, but I don't expect the attitudes of dinosaurs like him to change.
Arsenal did all they could to turn up the pressure in the second half, but Ipswich seemed to be holding out until Bendtner stepped in to change the game in the 61st minute. He had moved to a wide left role when Jack Wilshere found him with a raking pass from his own half. Bendtner took the ball down perfectly with his first touch, and flicked it inside the retreating Carlos Edwards with his second. His third touch pushed it away from him to fifteen yards out, and to the left of the goal. His fourth touch then curled the ball into the far corner of the net, leaving the goalkeeper with no chance at all. It was a fantastic goal, and I was delighted that the boss hadn't heeded the suggestions of myself and many others to replace him.
With Ipswich still reeling from that goal Arsenal turned the screw, and added a second goal in the 64th minute. Arshavin hassled an Ipswich defender into conceding a corner, and he too that corner himself. His corner was met by Laurent Koscielny, who got there before the goalkeeper, and powered a header into the back of the net. The relief was there for all to see, and the fans sensed that Wembley was getting a lot closer.
Ipswich knew that they had to try to attack, or their dreams were over, and to be fair to them they gave it their best shot. It looked like they might leave themselves open to a counter attack, and that proved to be the case. In the 77th minute Denilson made an interception outside the Arsenal box, and fed the ball to Cesc. He ran towards the Ipswich box, and passed the ball to Arshavin, who brought it inside, before passing it back to an overlapping Cesc. As the keeper advanced Cesc slipped it between his legs to make it 3-0 and put the result beyond any doubt.
With six minutes left Arshavin and RVP came off, and they were replaced by Nasri and Walcott, which must have been a very disheartening site for the tired Ipswich players. Ipswich played their part in a good game, but the class of Arsenal was just too much for them in the end. It means that Arsenal will make the short trip to Wembley on February 27th to play either West Ham or Birmingham in the Carling Cup final. They are bound to be favourites to win the game. Thankfully they have the best part of a week off before, and after the game, and that should enable Arsenal to play a full strength team in that game.
I thought that Wilshere was Arsenal's outstanding player on the night, but I was also very impressed with Johan Djourou's defensive performance. They are two players who have got their chance this season, and they seem to have grabbed that chance with both hands. Other players who are on the fringes of the team should take note of how well they have done, and try to emulate it themselves.
At one stage it appeared that Arsenal were going to have an even better night, as "Manure" were 2-0 down away from home to Blackpool. At the very start of the second half Blackpool were denied a certain penalty to make the score 3-0, and after that things went wrong for them, and "Manure" ran out 3-2 winners. It looked like they wouldn't increase their lead to five points, but they have, and Arsenal now need to keep winning their Premier League games to stay in touch at the top.
They can forget about that Premier League campaign for this weekend, as it's back to the FA Cup with a fourth round game at home to League One side Huddersfield Town. It's a game Arsenal are huge favourites to win, and I think that there will be a few changes for that game, as Everton pay Arsenal a visit in a Premier League game only two days later.
Arsenal are two games into a run of six home games in seven, and if they win all of those six games they will be in a very healthy situation. If they beat Huddersfield, and get a home game in the fifth round of the FA Cup, it will mean that they play eight out of nine games at home, which is quite an odd thing to happen. The only traveling during that time will be a trip to Newcastle in the league. Let's hope they can turn on the style in front of 60,000 fans in all of those home games, as well as beating Newcastle, and see where that leaves their season. I'm looking forward to seeing how far this team can go this season.
Finally for today you might have noticed that I got my forecast for last night's result right for the third time in a row. I'm on a bit of a roll at the moment, but I don't expect it to last much longer. However, as long as Arsenal keep winning I won't be too far off, as I always predict an Arsenal win.
That's it for today.
Here's the highlights from last night's game.
See You Tomorrow.